Closer Readings Commentary

How Teachers Can Make the Most of “Power and Pathos”

Even though we are based in Washington, D.C., a city filled with world-class museums that frequently offer exceptional exhibits, we’ve never written about them on this blog. This is not because we aren’t interested in writing about art and culture in the classroom—far from it!

We know that many history and literature teachers, along with art educators, will be interested in seeing and learning more about the works on display in these shows and will have many useful ideas to share about how they would use them in the classroom. But all too often, museum websites make too few images and contextual materials available for an online audience of teachers and students to work with.

Power and Pathos: Bronze Sculpture of the Hellenistic World is an exception in every way. This exhibit, which recently opened at the National Gallery of Art, Washington (after runs at the Strozzi Palace in Florence, Italy, and the Getty in Los Angeles), offers a stupendous opportunity for educators to introduce students to the ancient world through the art and culture of the Hellenistic period, which roughly spans a period from the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BCE to the defeat of Mark Antony and Cleopatra at Actium in 31 BCE.

Alexander the Great

Begin with the brilliant high definition video, which opens with Alexander the Great and his conquest of much of the known world: an empire that stretched from Greece and Egypt, through the Persian Empire in the Near East, to India. We learn about Alexander’s favorite sculptor, Lysippus, who helped to inaugurate the new Hellenistic style of Greek sculpture: dynamic, fluid, elegant, and emotional.


We are then taken to the ruins of Pergamon in Turkey, which once housed the monumental altar of Zeus and Athena. Now reconstructed in a Berlin museum, the altar is the culmination of the baroque side of this style: a tour-de-force of emotion and expert carving played out in a fantastic battle of Olympian gods and the Titians, who writhe and struggle around the full length of the altar’s podium.

Empire of bronze

The film then digs into the crux of the exhibit: how the medium of bronze drove artistic experimentation and innovation. Bronze—surpassing marble in its lightness, luster, and ability to hold the finest detail —made possible the remarkable true-to-life representations that reveal another aspect of the age. In the words of curator Kenneth Lapatin, “[r]ealistic portraiture as we know it today, with its emphasis on individuality and expression, originated in the Hellenistic period.”   

New faces

One expects to see beautiful and noble images of gods, heroes, and athletes in Greek art and they are here in numbers including the spectacular Apoxyomenos (“The Scraper”) in which the third dimension of space, a feature that separates the Classical from the Hellenistic, is breached by the figure’s extended arms. But there are also new subjects for the sculptor’s art: people at all stages of life, from infancy to old age, from noble citizen to humble artisan. Here are the pathos of power and power of pathos!

Rarest of the rare

Bronze statutes were frequently melted down for other use, as a result only about 200 survive, which makes this exhibit especially noteworthy. Of the fifty rare and beautiful bronze statutes (or parts thereof) on display in the galleries, about twenty two are available to view online. What makes the images even more usable for teaching is the downloadable audio tour with brief incisive comments by the various curators, all of which help us learn how to look at ancient bronzes. 

What do poets see?

So, with these resources and a little imagination, teachers and students can construct their own visit to the exhibit and commune with these worthy ancients. Literature teachers might want to concentrate on how great modern poets such as Keats or Rilke used ancient sculpture in such poems as Ode to a Grecian Urn or Archaic Torso of Apollo. After a close reading and careful looking at one of the works of art, ask students to write their own poems inspired by one of the bronzes.  

Humanities questions

Other students might be more interested in putting together a series of questions they have about a work in the show. One of the scholars associated with the exhibit, Emeritus Professor Carol Mattusch, wrote an important guide to questions raised by Victorious Youth.  Such questions could easily lead students to learn about the various humanities disciplines from archaeology to classics to philosophy, all of which inform the scholarship underlying Power and Pathos.

Pathos of The Boxer

One of the exemplary Hellenistic bronzes which did not make it to Washington is the Terme Boxer from Rome, a wonderfully realistic fighter, slumped and exhausted after his brutal competition. Sean Hemingway from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, one of the show's curators, wrote about it for the Met's blog; and the legendary sports writer Gay Talese offered his own insights in this short video. This ancient version of "Rocky" will surely resonate with students who have cheered for our own “ancient” Sylvester Stallone, in the new movie Creed.

Further resources for educators

Of course, if one wants to know more about the many aspects of the ancient world touched on in this exhibit, the Metropolitan Museum of Art offers one of the best ways to learn more quickly about a vast number of topics through its award-winning Timeline of Art History.

Two further online resources that help educators engage students of any age with the art of ancient Greece: